FERGUS FINLAY: Time stands still as a major milestone is marked by old age

Gene Autry had the first official number one song of 1950 in the USA. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Now that I’m old (and vulnerable) my state wants to keep me safe while they’re giving me stuff, writes Fergus Finlay


SO IT’S official. I’m old. Clapped out. Bunched. No use to man nor beast. And, mysteriously, my watch stopped. And all because I made my debut the same year as Rudolph. Yes, the lad with the red nose. (No comparisons with his red nose welcome!) That was 1950. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was born, and the story of his adventures became one of the biggest hit records of the year. Gene Autry’s recording went on to sell 25 million copies.

By comparison, I was pretty small beer. Born the same year as Rudolph, alongside my twin sister Finola (who has managed to remain remarkably un-clapped out) but nobody outside our immediate family noticed.

But Rudolph doesn’t qualify for the free travel, just because he’s as old as I am. I do. That’s one of the first things that happens to you when your country decides that you’re old. It makes you beholden, and I suppose grateful, to the foresight of the late great Charley Haughey, who introduced free travel for pensioners. He announced it in his budget speech when I was a lad of 17 — little did I ever think back then that I’d be one of the ould lads who’d be at the receiving end of his largesse.

I actually got a letter from my country, back in March, saying that I might soon be entitled to the free travel (and a pension, but that’s a longer story). The letter said I could ring up my local social welfare office and make an appointment for SAFE registration. That sounded good to me — now that I’m old (and vulnerable) my state wants to keep me safe while they’re giving me stuff.

SAFE, however, turns out to stand for Standard Authentication Framework Environment. Far from sounding welcoming, it actually sounds like a bureaucratic trap. But it turns out it’s not.

Rather than going through the appointment route, I decided to go to a walk-in centre in Amiens Street, and I decided to wait until my birthday to do it. Short of providing a birthday cake, they couldn’t have been nicer. My missus and I (because you’re ancient, you’re allowed to bring a helper with you) were sat down in front of a very nice lady who asked us a variety of questions.

You’re told to bring proof of identity and proof of address with you, and there’s a number of other things they ask you so your identity won’t be stolen if your card ever ends up in the wrong hands. It’s also suggested in advance that it would be helpful (though not essential) to have your birth cert, so I brought that too.

And that’s when we entered Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (if you’re as old as me you’ll have no trouble remembering that. If you’re not, google it.) While we were going through the process, I glanced down at my birth cert, and noticed that it had the time of my birth written on it as well as the date. Curious, I looked at my watch to see exactly how old I was now, in years and hours. My watch was stopped.

It’s a Seiko watch. I was given it as a present on my 30th birthday, so it’s been on my wrist for 36 years. Every few years or so, it slows down, giving me ample warning that the battery needs to be changed. But it has never, once, stopped before. Over the years, it has guided me through an awful lot.

But it stopped that day. And even more weirdly, it stopped at the precise moment my birth cert recorded me as being born, 66 years earlier — 10.22am. Because none of you is as ancient as I am, you also won’t know the song that immediately began swirling in my head.

“My grandfather’s clock was too tall for the shelf/So it stood all his life on the floor … It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born/And was always his joy and his pride/But it stopped, short never to go again/When the old man died.” I used to sing my kids to sleep with that song, when they were tiny, and I’ve tried it on my grandkids in more recent years. And now look! The grandfather in the song was 90 when his clock stopped short — this grandfather has a few years left on the clock, I hope.

But there’s nothing quite like an omen to convince you that you need to do something to prove you’re still alive. That’s why, goaded by my daughters, I jumped into the Irish Sea off the Forty Foot that evening. It was cold, and deep and rough, but I lived to tell the tale. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have told the tale — the photograph I put on Facebook gave some of my older friends a right good laugh.) But I want to reassure you, because you too will be officially clapped-out some day. By the way, because of recent changes, if you were born five years after me you’re not officially old until you’re 67. And if you were born 10 years after me you won’t be allowed to be officially old until you’re 68.

But it won’t matter, because here’s the truth of it. Yes, there’s no doubt that some bones and joints feel a bit stiffer, especially early in the morning. And there’s no doubt that some things (like teeth!) feel a bit looser.

And I suppose I have to admit that if I really really need to remember something nowadays, I tend to write it down. And, finally, I’m still waiting for the onset of wisdom that’s supposed to accompany my advancing years.

But apart from that, official old age doesn’t correlate with how any of us really feel. To be honest, I think it’s a bit mad that anyone in the whole of their health should be given all this free stuff, while other people (irrespective of age) have to struggle for basic services. I’ve always believed the best public services are those that respond to need carefully and sensitively, rather that something that is based on a pretty arbitrary criterion like age.

So I’m not planning to go mad with this new card that arrived in the post a few days after my visit to Amiens Street. It allows me to travel all over the country, and to be accompanied free of charge by my spouse, civil partner, or cohabitant — presumably in case I forget what station or bus stop to get off at. I’ll do a bit of that, now and again, in honour of Charlie.

Otherwise, I’m quite happy to go on doing what I do, working alongside people I constantly admire. You’re not allowed to get old anyway when you have grandkids — you have to at least pretend to have the energy of a young lad. You’re as old as you feel, after all, and I don’t feel nearly old enough to be entitled to anything.

Though I suppose I’ll have to get a new watch. Hopefully one that won’t stop short, never to go again, for a few years yet.


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